LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Ben Affleck seemed like a promising young actor when he starred in "Chasing Amy" a decade ago. A year later, he and Matt Damon won an Oscar for their screenplay for "Good Will Hunting."
But since then, Affleck has been better known for his offscreen romances than for his screen performances, which have been pretty universally derided. So a lot of people will be surprised by his directorial debut, "Gone Baby Gone," though if you caught the glint of intelligence he showed in such movies as "Going All the Way" and "Boiler Room," his achievement here might seem less startling.
Affleck, who also wrote the screenplay with Aaron Stockard, was smart to begin with a novel by Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River"). Like that story, which was made into an award-winning movie by Clint Eastwood, this one takes place in a working-class neighborhood of Boston and centers on the disappearance of a child. Because this film is as uncompromising as "Mystic River," and since the cast is not quite as star-studded, it faces an uphill battle at the box office. But it's going to be remembered as one of the best crime movies of this decade.
Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) is a private investigator who works with his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan) in a tight-knit Boston neighborhood. They are asked by distraught relatives to help the police locate a missing 4-year-old girl. The search leads to druggies, crime bosses, pedophiles and compromised cops.
The plot is complicated and loaded with twists, but the writers do a fine job of keeping the action lucid. The script boasts a good deal of mordant humor, along with an underlying mood of melancholy. Perhaps what is most impressive is the complex moral vision that permeates the script. When Patrick gives vent to anger and disgust and shoots a pedophile, the cops applaud him, but he is tormented by the killing. That's a sign that the film isn't going to rely on pat moral judgments.
"Gone" also contains a rich gallery of vivid characters, brought to life by an excellent cast. This is one case where nepotism pays off because Affleck's brother Casey gives the strongest performance of his career. He creates a memorable character -- a baby-faced detective who is constantly being mocked for his youthful appearance (a cop tells him to go back to his "Harry Potter" book) but proves to be tougher and smarter than he looks. Actually, it's neither brains nor brawn that makes Patrick a good detective; his chief strength is perseverance, a bullheaded refusal to give up the chase.
Monaghan demonstrates an easy rapport with Casey Affleck. Ed Harris is superb as a cynical cop, and Harris' wife Amy Madigan has a choice cameo as the kidnapped girl's aunt. Morgan Freeman has a small but crucial role as the chief of police and lends an air of gravitas to his few scenes. All of the lowlife supporting characters are sharply etched, and there's an outstanding turn by Amy Ryan as the kidnapped girl's fun-loving, irresponsible mother.
As director Affleck gets strong support from the moody, dark-tinged cinematography of two-time Oscar winner John Toll, William Goldenberg's astute editing and Harry Gregson-Williams' evocative score. Sharon Seymour's production design also plays a role in building the sense of a community, which ultimately has a great deal to do with the film's denouement.
Viewers will argue about Patrick's decision in the final reel and debate whether he acted in the best interests of the kidnapped child. He is motivated by loyalty to the community where he grew up, and the film neither endorses nor criticizes his judgment. The understated, open-ended final scene allows us to sort out the moral implications for ourselves. It's a tribute to this thoughtful, deeply poignant, splendidly executed film that we replay the conclusion in our minds long after the lights come on.
Patrick Kenzie: Casey Affleck
Angie Gennaro: Michelle Monaghan
Jack Doyle: Morgan Freeman
Detective Remy Broussard: Ed Harris
Helene McCready: Amy Ryan
Lionel McCready: Titus Welliver
Beatrice McCready: Amy Madigan
Detective O'Malley: Robert Wahlberg
Poole: John Ashton
Amanda McCready: Madeline O'Brien
Director: Ben Affleck; Screenwriters: Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard; Based on the book by: Dennis Lehane; Producers: Alan Ladd Jr., Dan Rissner, Sean Bailey; Executive producer: David Crockett; Director of photography: John Toll; Production designer: Sharon Seymour; Music: Harry Gregson-Williams; Co-producer: Chay Carter; Costume designer: Alix Friedberg; Editor: William Goldenberg.